Joan R. Coates, DVM, MS, DACVIM-Neurology

AVMA Members Working to Advance Animal and Human Health through Research

Full Professor, University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in the Department of Veterinary Medicine & Surgery.
Neurology & Neurosurgery Service Leader, MU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
Physical Rehabilitation Service Co-Director

Educational Background

1987 BS – General Agriculture, University of Missouri, 1990 DVM – University of Missouri, 1994 MS – Neuroscience, Auburn University, 1991-1994 – Neurology & Neurosurgery Residency, Auburn University, Diplomate ACVIM (Neurology) 1994. 2007-present, Full Professor University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in the Department of Veterinary Medicine & Surgery. Neurology & Neurosurgery Service Leader, MU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Physical Rehabilitation Service Co-Director.

Do you have any pets?

4 dogs (Jack Russell Terrier, Airedale and 2 mixed breeds), 1 cat, 3 miniature Sicilian donkeys, 2 Quarter horses.

What is the focus of your research?

I am a member of the Comparative Neurology Program at the College of Veterinary Medicine. The goals of the program are to identify developmental and degenerative diseases of the nervous system in animals (particularly dogs and cats), understand the molecular pathogenesis of these diseases and corresponding diseases in humans, while translating that understanding into improved diagnostic and therapeutic strategies. We use comparative medicine and translational approaches to explore therapeutic strategies with hopes that the treatment benefits will translate to the related human diseases. My area of research focus involves the study of canine degenerative myelopathy as a disease model for translation of therapeutic strategies to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

What is the scientific and clinical significance of your research?

In collaborations with Drs. Gary Johnson at the University of Missouri and Kerstin Lindblad-Toh at the Broad Institute of MIT/Harvard University, we discovered that a mutation in the superoxide dismutase 1 gene (SOD1) underlies the cause of canine degenerative myelopathy (DM). SOD1 mutations also cause some inherited amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Since the discovery, we continue further characterize canine DM with specific biomarker/disease measures that are shared across species to human ALS. The ALS research community has recognized canine DM as a disease model for study of therapeutic approaches for treatment of ALS. Similarities between the canine and human nervous systems and the homogeneity in clinical progression of canine DM will facilitate translation of therapies into human applications. Furthermore, dogs with DM offer a ready clinical population on which therapies can be evaluated in an environment closely mimicking human clinical trials. It is thought that canine DM, a naturally-occurring disease model, will serve as a potentially useful for temporal studies of disease progression and evaluation of ALS and DM targeted new therapeutic/diagnostic approaches. We propose that evaluating therapies on a canine disease model of ALS will reflect more accurately human ALS than the current rodent ALS models.

What do you find most enjoyable about research?

As a board-certified veterinary neurologist and clinician scientist, I want to make a difference by helping our companion dogs affected by degenerative myelopathy and enable canine DM to help ALS. I enjoy being in an environment where I can continue to be challenged by learning something new and continuing to build upon my knowledge base. Collaborations with ALS researchers in basic science and clinical arena have provided unique opportunities to further understand disease mechanisms and pathology of canine DM. Those collaborations also have opened the doors to investigate innovative therapeutic approaches for treatment of DM. Lastly, I am very grateful to be surrounded by excellent and supportive colleagues and in an environment that supports the one health/one medicine philosophy.

What advice do you have for veterinarians considering a career in biomedical research?

It is important to keep one’s doors open to learning and seek out additional experiences in research laboratories. One must have a passion for learning. During veterinary school, a student should not just ‘memorize’ the materials being taught to pass an examination. The student needs to have the self-initiative and discipline to additionally ‘learn’ the why and how. Because we are in a diverse profession and exposed to so much during our education, our broad knowledge base enables us to pursue biomedical research opportunities through another advanced degree program, industry, specialization, etc... I consider research to be very challenging but also rewarding when working through a hypothesis. Part of research is being willing to accept the ebbs and flows of what the research will bring. It is important to seek mentorship, attend meetings, keep current with the literature and take opportunity to present the research. It is also important to be open to critique and learn from others who have differences in opinions. This will enable one to keep an open-mind that may allow the research to take a different or even better direction. Moreover, establishing collaborations with other researchers is critical toward advancing the research.

See how other AVMA members are advancing animal and human health